A year ago Vanity Fair writer Michael Wolff said that “If Newsweek is around in five years, I’ll buy you dinner”. Even that prediction for the title’s longevity now looks optimistic. The Washington Post has put Newsweek up for sale – and so far no one seems interested in buying it. Thompson Reuters are half-heartedly investigating to see if they can turn the brand into something useful online after Murdoch took a look but thought they couldn’t do anything with it.
The once mighty magazine is starting to resemble a once valued piece of family furniture that evokes sentimental feelings but no one is quite prepared to give any houseroom. Along with its more successful cousin, Time, Newsweek has suffered a dramatic fall in advertising in recent years. And its circulation has fallen off a cliff – down from 4 million as recently as 2003 down to 1.5 million this year. The desperate redesigns, more luxuriant paper quality, and change in strategy to focus on analysis rather than news hasn’t work: it still losing money.
The trials of Newsweek have been taken as a sign that weekly magazines are a doomed format. In an age of political blogs and rolling news, who is going to sit down for a weekly political précis? What future for long-form journalism with the shortened attention spans of the modern age? This line of attack seems to be taking things too far. The problem with Newsweek always seemed to me that it was dated. It reminds me of Madmen era America – along with cars with tail fins, tennis whites and drinking in the office. It retains conformity, an establishment feel, that worked in the era when it was the only place where millions went to get their weekly Washington politics. They would get the Baltimore Sun or the Philadelphia Enquirer for their daily news – and turn to Newsweek for news of the President.
Now, that world is far away, and its offerings just aren’t distinctive enough from anything that the newspapers or political websites are doing. If you want the inside story of the Obama White House you would be better off going to Slate. The colour pieces that were once Newsweek and Time’s stock-in-trade –with tit-bits about the President’s eating habits, golf swing, or i-pod play list, appear in supplement pieces in the New Yorker or the NY Times magazine.
But it would be wrong to say, as some have, that the weekly or monthly format is doomed. The Economist has a distinct offering – weekly analysis rather than news – and its circulation is booming in the US. The Atlantic- with its mixture of politics, science and culture, and the New Yorker with its literary traditions thrive. The Week, with its idiosyncratic digest of the week’s news, has built up a circulation from scratch of half a million in the last decade. All offer something the distinctive.
The same can be seen in the British market. The Spectator has a record circulation since –as the Telegraph has gone down market – it has become the place where the Conservative party talks about itself. But the New Statesman – with left of centre politics – struggles to get any oxygen living under the shadow of the Guardian. It lacks distinctiveness.
It’s likely that Newsweek will live on as a brand name - like the defunct Life Magazine – which now reappears in the US for special current affairs supplements to mark big events like 9/11 and Obama’s election. But, whether it lives or dies, its problems don’t mark the death of magazine culture. RB
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